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MR. TAMBOURINE MAN
As a social worker with Dallas Children's Protective Services, Monica Green has seen her share of abusive fathers. So when she investigates a man for possible neglect of a three-year-old girl, she hardly expects to meet Father of the Year. But single dad Luke Malone is a loving, devoted parent. And a talented musician. And sexy as hell. Being with him, the jaded child advocate begins to believe in love again.
Since his Ex bailed when Riley was a baby, Luke has been both mother and father to his daughter. And that's taken its toll on his romantic life. Riley always comes first. But meeting Monica makes him start to believe he might have both. She fits in with their family as if she's always been a part of it. Can he open up his heart enough to allow some happiness for himself?
When his daughter's grandparents sue him for custody, Monica is by Luke’s side. For better or worse. But the worst case scenario tests her professional code and her personal beliefs. Ultimately, she must do what's best for the child. Even if it's not what's best for her heart.
Mr. Tambourine Man is the fourth book in the Rainy Day Women series, about women empowering women, and the men who love them. In a converted warehouse near downtown Dallas a group of strong, professional women come together to volunteer their services to the women of an under-served community. They name their facility The Rainy Day Women’s Center. Each book is a stand-alone romance about competent, independent women and the equally competent, independent men they can’t ignore—or live without.
“Two reds!” Clutched in a small fist, the plastic gingerbread man jumped across rainbow colored squares to land at King Kandy’s castle. “I won again.” Riley clapped her hands.
Luke Malone smiled at the glee in his daughter’s eyes. It had taken significant effort to lose six straight games of Candyland, but Riley’s face made the effort well worth it.
Outside, a blue Honda cruised slowly past the house, the same vehicle Luke had noticed following his truck several times in the past few weeks.
“Can we play again, Daddy? Just one more?”
“That’s enough for today.” Luke reached out and looped his finger through a soft, strawberry blond curl. “How about we go to the park?”
Riley nodded enthusiastically, curls bouncing.
The doorbell chimed. Luke raised a brow. Steve and Aaron were coming over to practice before the gig tonight but that wouldn’t be for hours. Some delivery service?
The bell rang again, insistently. Luke’s stomach muscles clenched. “Why don’t you put the game pieces in the box while I see who that is?”
Methodically Riley sorted all the cards by color, singing a song from Sesame Street.
As he walked to the door, Luke glanced out the window across his more-brown-than green lawn. The blue Honda sat parked at the curb. He looked through the peephole to see a man standing on the doorstep, neither wearing a uniform nor holding a clipboard.
He opened the door. “Can I help you?”
The man, close to six feet with a nondescript face, smiled. “I’m Bob Rice. I’m here to pick up Amy.”
Luke narrowed his eyes. “No Amy here.”
The man scratched his head. “My wife sent me to pick up our daughter from a play date.” He glanced at the number painted on the house. “This is 4408 isn’t it?”
Luke nodded. “But there’s no play date here. No Amy.”
The man glanced over Luke’s shoulder into the house. Luke turned to see Riley heading toward him, struggling to free her head from the sleeve of her pink hooded sweatshirt. He helped untangle her. “Riley, do you know anyone named Amy?”
When her head bobbed through the neck hole, she shook it vehemently.
Frowning, Bob Rice took out his phone and scrolled through his texts. “This is 4408 Myrtle Street?”
“Nope.” Luke smiled, breathing easier. “It’s 4408 Willow Street. Myrtle is the next block over.”
“My bad. Thanks.” The man put his phone in his jeans pocket and smiled. “I’m so sorry to have bothered you.”
“No problem.” Luke started to close the door but Bob Rice didn’t turn away.
“Hello, little lady.” Mr. Rice bent down to speak to Riley. That’s a pretty sweatshirt.”
Luke was about to prompt her when Riley replied with a shy “Thank you.”
“My daughter has one just like it,” the man said. “But hers is green.”
“I like pink,” Riley said.
“That color looks nice on you,” Rice agreed. “Do you mind if I take a picture to show my daughter?”
He reached for his phone again, and before Luke could protest, snapped a photo. “Thanks.” He stood upright and turned to Luke. “Again, sorry to have disturbed you.” He waved and walked to his car.
Luke closed the door and double locked it, his chest tightening with an unsettling feeling.
“Can we go to the park now?” Riley asked.
Letting out a shaky breath, Luke patted the soft fleece of his daughter’s hood. “On second thought, why don’t we make brownies instead? You and Mrs. Palmer can have them for a snack tonight.”
“Can I lick the bowl?”
“If you wash your hands.”
When Riley scampered off, Luke peered out the window as Bob Rice got into his Honda. And sat in the car for several minutes. Finally he started the engine and drove off. But ‘Mr. Rice’ didn’t make the turn at the corner to get to Myrtle Street. Instead, the blue Honda headed straight down Willow and, once past the stop sign, sped away like a bat out of hell.
* * *
“We’re here to get custody of our granddaughter.”
Monica Green studied the white couple sitting in front of her desk, their hands clasped, their eyes hopeful. Bill and Virginia Kendall looked to be in their late fifties or early sixties, well-dressed and well-groomed, confident, but a little anxious. “On what grounds?”
“Grounds?” The woman looked at her husband.
Mr. Kendall cleared his throat. “Our daughter passed away recently,” he said.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Monica lowered her eyes respectfully, then looked up again. “How old is your granddaughter?”
“Three years and seven months,” the woman replied.
Monica swished the folds of her crinkly maxi-skirt, her favorite casual Friday outfit, curious why this couple had come to Dallas Child Protective Services instead of going through the courts. “And she’s been living with you since her mother passed?”
Neither head nodded.
“We’ve actually never seen the child,” the husband said at last.
Monica put down her pen and met Bill Kendall’s eyes.
His lips twisted. “We are…were…estranged from our daughter. Four years without a word.” He inhaled. “Then last month state troopers showed up at our door and told us she’d been killed in a car accident.” He scrubbed a hand against his cheek. “Apparently she was still using a driver’s license with our address on it.”
Monica caught her breath. “Was the little girl in the car?”
Mrs. Kendall shook her head. “They gave us Lacey’s effects, including her phone, and we found this photo.” She held up a phone. “Until we saw this, we didn’t even know Riley existed.” She drew a tissue out of her giant purse and sniffed into it.
Monica leaned forward to view the picture of a young woman in a hospital gown, holding a newborn baby. The mother bore a strong resemblance to the couple in front of her, but a photo wasn’t evidence. “Do you have the child’s birth certificate?”
Virginia Kendall whipped a document from her purse.
Monica held it by its edges. Dated the day before the picture, the photocopy of the birth certificate from Dallas General Hospital listed Lacey Marie Kendall as having given birth to Riley Gail Kendall. There was no father listed. “Have you tried to locate the child?” she asked. “Perhaps a private investigator--”
“We’ve already hired someone,” the husband said. “And he found her.”
The wife scrolled to another photo on her phone, this one of a cute little girl with strawberry blond curls stuffed into the hood of a pink sweatshirt. Mrs. Kendall’s face screwed into an anxious expression. “Some man has her.” She bit her lip. “We’re worried what he might do, what he might have already done…” She clenched the tissue in her fist.
Some man? “The child’s father?”
“We don’t know,” Bill Kendall snapped. He jabbed his finger at the blank space on the form next to the word ‘father’ and lowered his voice. “He could just be whatever guy Lacey was shacking up with before she died.”
Harsh words from a father about his dead daughter. But that didn’t mean Mr. Kendall wasn’t right in his assumption. Monica searched for “Riley” in a database of children in the foster system, focusing on recent admissions. If the man Lacey Kendall had been living with wasn’t related to the child, it was a good bet he’d handed her over to the authorities as soon as he realized her mother wasn’t coming back. “How long ago was Riley seen at that address?”
“Three days ago.”
Monica confirmed the child wasn’t in the system. Yet. “What do you want CPS to do?”
Virginia Kendall withdrew yet another document from her bottomless purse. Her husband grabbed it and shoved the multi-page report from a private detective agency across Monica’s desk, his jaw rigid, his eyes gray stone. “We’re filing a complaint of child abuse. We want you to remove our granddaughter from that home.”
* * *
Monica pushed in the glass door of Dante’s Inferno, brightly painted with a caricature of a devil and pitchfork. The pounding percussion and rhythmic bass lines of a live band met her ears and the smell of fried onion rings, her nose, as she searched the bar for her colleagues.
“Over here.” Kate Steele waved from a table in the back, and Monica threaded her way through crowded tables, some with two or three extra chairs wedged in at odd angles. The clientele tonight were mostly couples, mostly white, but with a smattering of black, Hispanic, and Asian faces. A few biker couples wearing leather jackets and boots, but most people were dressed in date night attire from casual chic to just plain casual.
“I hope you don’t mind meeting here,” Kate said as Monica took the empty seat across the table. “I would have chosen a more upscale restaurant for your first Ladies Night Out with the girls, but Dante’s bartender called in sick so he had to work tonight instead of watching our daughter.”
“No problem. I’ve never been here as a customer before.” Monica had first visited the establishment two years ago when she was reviewing and approving Kate and her husband Dante’s application to foster a teenage son. “Things sure look different on a Saturday night.”
“And sound louder,” Kate said, nodding toward the band. “I hope we can hear ourselves talk tonight.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Monica turned her chair so she could see the band. The keyboardist looked like a throwback from the last century, his shoulder-length gray hair swinging as he deftly laid down the melody. The bass player was either stoned or so rapt in the music he didn’t make eye contact with the audience. The drummer, a skinny brother wearing waist-length dreadlocks, gave Monica the once over and winked.
She pretended not to notice, turning her gaze to the lead guitarist. White and semi-handsome, with the early stages of a light brown beard splotching his cheeks, he was too rugged-looking to be a heart throb, but exuded a kind of country charm. He strummed and sang with a passion for the music Monica recognized and related to.
“Hey, Ladies.” A striking Hispanic woman wearing black slacks, a black blouse with sequins, and a hot pink shawl approached the table and pulled out a chair between Monica and Kate. “Welcome to the Rainy Day Women, Monica.”
“Thanks.” The Rainy Day Women’s center, funded by Kate Steele’s inheritance, provided social services for under-served women in west Dallas. Selena Dunn was the center’s resident private investigator, Kate offered free legal advice, and a physician from Dallas General Hospital volunteered hours in the center’s clinic.
“Liz not here yet?” Selena asked, draping her shawl over the back of her chair.
“She texted a few minutes ago.” Kate answered. “She should be here in--”
“Hey.” Liz Carr approached their table, speaking loudly to be heard over the band. “Have we ordered yet?”
“Just a pitcher of Margaritas,” Kate said.
“Perfect.” Liz glided into the empty chair. “I could drink the whole pitcher by myself.”
“Tough day in the E.R.?” Selena asked.
“A man’s heart stopped twice in the ambulance and once on my table. A woman burned her hand on the stove and a little boy stuck his hand through a glass door and needed a dozen stitches.” Liz smiled wearily. “Just another day at the office.”
A waitress wearing a black tee and a short leather skirt set a pitcher of margaritas on the table. Liz poured herself a glass, nudging Monica playfully. “But I do remember nostalgically when I could go home, sip some wine and relax. Instead of dealing with two freaking energizer bunnies.”
Monica bit her lip. Dr. Elizabeth Carr and her husband had come to CPS six months ago wanting to adopt a baby, but had generously and enthusiastically volunteered to take two older siblings, ages four and six, from the foster system. “Parenthood harder than you’d thought?”
“Does a doctor wear a white coat?” Liz chuckled. “Thank goodness Jack has enough energy for the two of us.”
“So you still want to adopt the children?”
Liz eyed her as if she had grown an extra head. “Of course. We’re a family now.”
Monica drew in a breath, praying that the news she’d received this week wouldn’t derail their dreams.
Liz held her glass high as the others filled theirs. “To parenthood,” she toasted.
“To parenthood.” Monica clinked her glass with the others’. As she sipped her margarita, she became aware of the other women staring at her. “What?”
Liz cleared her throat. “Sorry, didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I just realized you’re the only one of us without kids and you’re the reason the rest of us have children.”
“Except for me.” Selena grinned. “Trey and I did it the old-fashioned way.”
Monica chuckled. “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable.” She twirled the stem of her glass between her fingers. “Finding good homes for children who need them is as important to me as starting hearts is to Liz.” She set down her glass. “In a way, we’re both saving lives.”
“Would you ever want to have children of your own?” Selena asked.
“Maybe someday.” Monica took a breath. “But with all these little people already in the world, it seems almost selfish to produce another one.”
“You think you might adopt one?” Selena persisted.
Monica shrugged. “Not my priority at the moment. I love kids, but I don’t think I have the patience and stamina to be a single parent.”
“Who says you have to be single?” Liz winked. “That guy in the band has been eyeing you since I got here.”
Presumably she meant the black drummer. Monica gave him another glance and a tepid smile. “Cute, but I’m not into dreadlocks,” she said to Liz.
“He seems to be into you.”
“I’m probably the only unattached woman of color in the bar tonight,” Monica said dismissively. Even though her skin color was almost as light as the women she was sitting with, black dudes always picked her out and gave her the eye. “And dating isn’t my priority at the moment either.”
“You’re not into men?” Selena asked brazenly.
Monica chuckled. “I like men just fine. I’m just not sure about settling down with one. In my line of work, I’ve seen so many bad fathers, trusting someone to stick around and raise a family seems like really long odds.”
“I hear you,” Selena said, downing her drink and pouring another from the pitcher. “Most of the deadbeat dads I track down don’t think they have any responsibility to support the children they’ve created.”
Monica sipped her margarita and leaned back to enjoy the music. When the beat slowed and the amps quieted, the lead singer took center stage and plucked an acoustic guitar. His melodic voice crooned Lionel Ritchie’s classic “Lady” with a heartbreaking sincerity that touched Monica to the core. And almost made her reconsider letting a ‘knight in shining armor’ into her life. Whoever this guy was singing to was one lucky woman.
“Thanks for letting us play for you tonight,” the singer said after the final chord. “We are Jingle Jangle Morning and we’ll be back for another set after a short break.”
Monica watched the man swing his guitar strap off his shoulder and walk behind the small stage, his faded jeans hugging his ass. He was probably in his mid-twenties, a carefree kind of music man who eked out a living playing clubs and other small venues. Traveling the open road. Living just for his music. She sighed. Though she’d once found that sexy, irresponsible aura appealing, years of dealing with the fallout from reckless relationships had pretty much hardened the romance out of Monica’s soul.
“How are you ladies doing tonight?” A lean, lanky man with dark hair, olive skin, and colorful tats emblazoned on his lower arms approached and pecked Kate’s cheek. Reminding Monica that maybe she shouldn’t jump too quickly to judgment. Who would have guessed, upon first meeting him, that a tattooed bar owner would be the ideal father figure for an at risk teenager?
Dante Lazaro nodded at the other women in turn. “Selena. Liz.” His gaze stopped at Monica. “Miss Green?”
“You can call me Monica.” She smiled at Kate’s husband. “As of this month, I am officially one of the Rainy Day volunteers.”
“Kate finally twisted your arm, huh?”
“Just a couple of Saturdays a month.” Most of the women in the neighborhood the center served didn’t have access to computers, and many of them didn’t speak English. Since joining the team, Monica had spent most of her hours navigating the websites of government agencies, referring clients to the social services they were entitled to.
Dante took a pad out of his apron. “Can I get you all some of our delicious food or are you gals drinking your dinners tonight?”
“I’ll have the fried shrimp,” Monica said, and the others chimed in with their orders.
Dante wrote them down and then stepped away to schmooze with the patrons at the next table.
“So who’s watching your little girl tonight?” Liz asked Kate.
“Turo.” Kate pointed to the ceiling, above which, Monica knew, was a small apartment. Kate and Dante’s foster son had aged out of the system and was no longer their responsibility, but they let him stay in the space above the bar which had once been Dante’s home.
“You could have brought her to our place,” Selena said, licking the salt off the rim of her glass. “Noah would have loved a playmate.”
“I didn’t want Trey to have to deal with two Terrible Twos.” Kate grinned, as though a couple of toddlers would be any kind of a match for Selena’s cop husband. “And actually, she has a playmate up there now. One of the guys in the band couldn’t get a sitter so he brought his three-year-old daughter here tonight.”
“Guy in the band?” Liz asked.
“The lead singer, Luke Malone.”
Luke Malone? Monica almost sucked the lime off her margarita glass.